High School: An Inside Story

Minutes before the bell for the day’s first class, kids lean against the gray cinder-block walls of the I Building, sit on the sidewalk next to the soda machine outside the Student Center, hang out on benches in Mene Square, named after the school’s mascot, the menehune.

Student Chelsea Slater strolls through Mene Square, on her way to her next class. 

 

Monday 8 a.m.

I report to the administration office to start my week at Moanalua High School. It looks like your standard-issue, concrete campus—this one sprawling across 35 acres in Salt Lake. Darrel Galera—thin, intense, with a mustache—looks young for a principal, but he’s headed Moanalua for the past five years. He also taught social studies here in the ’80s, before stints as principal of ‘Aiea Elementary and King Intermediate.

Galera shows me around. He walks briskly, skirting students in the hallway, barely breaking his stride as he calls out greetings. “You being good?” he asks one. He gets an instant reply—“Yes, Mr. Galera.”

 

There’s not much of a dress code here, but there is an implicit uniform among students—T-shirts, jeans and shorts, slippers and sneakers. A lot of girls sport tank tops, which help on humid days, especially in classrooms without air conditioning.

Students wear their ID cards—strung onto lanyards around their necks, clipped onto shirtsleeves—or tuck them into their backpacks. They have to. It’s how security guards weed out the people who don’t belong on campus.

Galera stops suddenly. He’s looking at a chubby boy in a yellow T-shirt fiddling with his cell phone. Students can carry phones, but they have to turn them off once school starts.

The boy looks up. “I’m turning it off! I’m turning it off!” he insists.

Galera extends his hand, palm up. The boy sighs, gives him the phone. “OK, OK. You gotta do whatever you feel is right, Mr. Galera. Do I get detention?”

“Not this time,” Galera replies.

“OK, then, can I get my phone back? I promise I won’t turn it on again.”

“I know you won’t,” Galera says, “because it’ll be in my office till the end of the day.”

 

Galera introduces me to seniors Lorraine Pascual and Emily King, who share the same AP Calculus class, a subject I gladly dropped in high school.

Several students linger around teacher Dianne Minei-Kimoto’s desk, cramming before the morning’s test.

Other students are already in their seats, looking over their textbooks. Pascual is one of them. She woke up at 5:30 this morning, like she has every school day for the past four years, to catch the bus from Ewa Beach.

“The bus ride takes about two hours, but I’m used to it,” she says with a half-hearted laugh. “I just sleep on the bus.”

Like Pascual, about a fifth of Moanalua’s 2,000 students live outside of the district. Lots of parents want to send their kids here—between 300 and 400 students submit applications for geographic exceptions every year. The school can accept only about 100 of them.

Pascual came to Moanalua particularly for its media communications and technology learning center. Each year, fewer than 30 freshmen are selected for the center’s integration program, which offers core classes—science, language and social studies—through multimedia, including computers and video. Math, however, is still taught separately.

King wears red aloha-print shorts and a blue hooded sweatshirt. Her blond hair is wet, pinned up into a bun. She’d gone jogging with her father earlier this morning. “Not very far,” she tells me. “About four miles.”

King is one of the best cross-country runners in the state, as well as a competitive swimmer, water polo player and track star. She’s not all jock. She’s maintained a 4.0 grade point average since transferring from North Carolina. King’s father is in the military, just like the parents of about 20 percent of the school’s student body.

 

Moanalua’s demographics aren’t much different from any other school—the area’s median income and educational-attainment levels hover around state averages. In other words, this isn’t just a school for rich kids.

Moanalua accepts children from a district bordered by the Army’s Fort Shafter to the Red Hill Naval Reservation. Between the military housing projects lie single-family homes and a high concentration of middle- and high-rise apartments.

“Good morning, Menes!” a game show-worthy voice cuts through the quiet calculus class. “This is your daily bulletin for March 5, 2005.”

It’s the morning news for Moanalua High, broadcast from a 27-inch TV in nearly every classroom. The interruption startles me a bit. None of the students in this class even looks up from their textbooks.

The round face of a student broadcaster fills the TV screen, giving the scoop on the school’s new electronic bus-pass system, which will be launched next year; the senior class’s canned food drive; and the chicken fund-raiser for the freshmen class.

Kola mo. Kaloa moa. It takes a few tries for the kid to pronounce Koala Moa correctly. I chuckle. No one else does.

Sheez, this is an intense bunch.

 

Newspaper adviser Liane Voss starts off her newswriting class with a current-events quiz. Her students know it’s coming, but as Voss hands out the half-sheet tests to students, they groan nonetheless.

“I don’t even read the newspaper!” the girl next to me exclaims. “I don’t even watch the news. Unless something interesting happened, you know.”

The first question: “This media celebrity was released from prison last week.” An easy point—Martha Stewart.

Fewer of them know which country would begin withdrawing its troops from Lebanon or what incident involving an Italian journalist in Iraq spurred a U.S. investigation. The question on why the state closed some North Shore beaches last week inspired some interesting answers. Jellyfish? Monk seals? Treacherous sea creatures? No dice. High surf.

How many schools did the state announce it was going to “take over” the previous week? One student asks, “How about we get the point if get it within five?”

“Plus or minus two,” Voss says.

 

Joshua Huff, editor-in-chief of the Na Hoku O Moanalua, likes watching CNN. He knew that exactly 24 public schools in Hawaii would be “taken over,” that Syria planned to withdraw its troops from Lebanon and, for the bonus point, that it was Phil Mickelson who’d lost to Tiger Woods in the past weekend’s golf tournament.

“I’m really interested in politics—I want to major in political science in college,” says Huff. “I think it’s really important for people to be informed and get involved. I once asked a few kids in my class where Washington, D.C., was, and some of them said Virginia.’ That’s just scary.”

Huff rattles off his grudges against the Bush administration—its decisions on the Middle Eastern conflict, the No Child Left Behind Act. He’s written articles for his own school paper about such perceived injustices.

“I really want to be a journalist,” he says. “I know everything’s moving toward the Internet these days, but I’d like to keep newspapers around. I love the feel of them.”

He tells me he just got his acceptance letter to New York University. He’s still waiting on Georgetown. He also applied to the University of Washington—“my safe school,” he tells me.

Between 80 percent and 85 percent of Moanalua’s graduates go on to higher education, including four-year colleges, community colleges and vocational schools. In fact, DOE figures show that Moanalua’s college-bound rate is above the state’s average. Last year, college and career counselor Gwen Mau helped seniors amass close to $5 million in college scholarships.

 

In sophomore biology class, I slide into the only open seat in the room, way in the back. Teacher Erron Yoshioka goes over the difference between RNA and DNA. Each has four chemical building blocks—A, C, G, U and A, C, G, T, respectively.

Sounds vaguely familiar to me. I forgot I used to know this stuff at some point in my life.

“Do you know how I learned I’m an O [blood type]?” Yoshioka asks. “As a sophomore in my biology class. Actually, I was a freshman. We’d prick our finger, put the blood on a slide and look at it under a microscope. You can’t do that anymore. It’s almost taboo. You know why?”

“AIDS,” a few say.

“AIDS. And hepatitis,” Yoshioka says. “Now, we can’t even help you clean up a cut without putting on rubber gloves first.”

A boy to the right of me in the back row whispers to his pal about getting his braces off. The girl on my left snoozes. I sympathize.

The room looks like every other in the school, with the exception of the lab stations that border opposing walls. Tennis balls pad the leg ends of each desk. Two large filthy fish tanks, with what I think are fish in them, sit next to the windows. Sea creatures, crafted out of recycled bottles, plates and construction paper, hang on a string stretching from the front of the room to the back.

Yoshioka is still talking about genetics. “Did you know only 1 of 225 women are color blind, while 1 out of 15 men are?” he says. “God did right, I think. Can you imagine if a woman was colorblind?”

Nobody laughs.

 

 
 
Principal Darrel Galera spends much of his day out of his office, walking the campus.

Homeroom teachers warned their students earlier this year about the upcoming Hawaii State Assessment, a standardized test that most 10th graders in all of the state’s public schools are required to take. Still, principal Galera visits all of the sophomore language-arts classes personally, to emphasize the test’s importance.

When he talks, students listen.

“A lot of you have asked me, Will this go on my transcript, the one I send to colleges?’” Galera tells one class. “The answer is yes.”

HSA scores don’t affect students’ report cards or whether they move on to the next grade, but they have a real impact on the school itself. The test determines which schools meet benchmarks the state of Hawaii has set for itself under the federal No Child Left Behind act. Schools that fail could face penalties, including lost funding and staff replacement.

Moanalua met or exceeded all but one of those benchmarks last year. The sophomore class as a whole scored much higher than the 10th graders who took the test the previous year. But the school failed to meet its target in the area of special education. All students—including those with physical, mental or emotional disabilities—are held to the same proficiency standards. Last year, 10th-grade special-education students missed those marks.

“It’s bad for an educator to say this, but it’s unrealistic to expect special-education students to meet the same standards as regular-education students,” Galera tells me later. “We have students who are mentally retarded or autistic or have learning problems. It’s like telling students in a 100-yard dash, everyone is required to finish this race in 25 seconds, even the students who have injuries.”

Galera doesn’t get into these finer points with this English class. “We want to make sure you know this is an important test, like the SAT or the ACT,” he tells them. “We believe that previous sophomore classes didn’t understand what it was all about. We don’t know if they tried their best.”

Some students in last year’s class answered multiple-choice questions arbitrarily, filling in bubbles in some very creative patterns.

If an inadequate number of sophomores meet the state’s expectations this spring, it would be the third consecutive year that Moanalua failed to meet its benchmarks. In that case, the school would be forced to provide extra tutoring for students, on its own dime, without any funding from the feds or the state.

If Moanalua fails to meet all of its benchmarks for the fourth and fifth years, it could be restructured by the state, like the 24 schools that recently made headlines.

“When it’s time to take this test, you need to be here in school—on time,” Galera continues. “If we don’t have a 95 percent participation rate, we automatically fail.”

Galera hands out sample reading and math tests to the students. “I know the math ones look hard, and some of the questions are ones you’ve never seen before, like geometry,” he says, “but you have to focus and try your best.”

I flip through the sample math test. Later, my managing editor and I would try to solve one of the algebra questions—a cryptic, three-equation problem that required us to solve for x, y and z. It took us an hour. We did eventually get it right.

 

I get the feeling that I’ve only been hanging around the school’s overachievers. Where were the everyday kids? Or had straight-A, trophy-winning, socially conscious kids suddenly become the norm?

I catch up with a student Galera had introduced me to, another go-getter—he’s a band member and an athlete who consistently makes honor roll. He’s heading to the weight room for training, even though his team is in the off-season.

“Are most of the students here as serious as you are about school?” I ask him.

“Nah,” he replies, “not everyone’s that serious. We get some cruisers. The surfers, the football players—most of them just cruise.”

He points to a boy walking past us. “He’s a cruiser.” He looks around, watching students heading toward the gym, and spots another boy sitting on a stone bench. “Talk to him,” he says.

 

 
 
Drama students David Serrao IV and Rachel Nagata.

The boy he’s singled out is dressed almost all in black—plain black T-shirt, baggy black pants and spotless white sneakers. His girlfriend, a sophomore, is almost all in white, wearing a cropped polo shirt and miniskirt. She sits beside him, her arm linked through his.

Their conversation stops as soon as I approach. But they’re willing to talk.

“So what do you guys think about school?” I ask.

“Shitty,” says the boy, who tells me he’s a junior. He looks up at me from the top of his reflective sunglasses. “It’s the same thing every day,” he says.

“I’d rather just stay home,” says his girlfriend.

“Well, what can Moanalua do to make school better for you?” I ask.

“Have less classes,” he says.

“Aren’t there any classes that you do like?” I ask him.

“No, it’s all the same.”

“You like Team Sports,” his girlfriend reminds him helpfully.

“Oh yeah, I like Team Sports,” he says.

 

“Is that ice cream for breakfast?” I ask Isaac*, as we walk to his first class of the day.

“Slush float,” he says between spoonfuls. “From Byron’s [Drive Inn].”

Galera introduced me to Isaac, a special education student, earlier in the week. For privacy reasons, I can’t divulge many details about him. But I can say he was probably one of the most good-natured, insightful students I met during my week.

He used to attend a leeward Oahu school, but likes it much better at Moanalua. “It’s so different here,” Isaac says. “Over there, you get D-plusses and the teachers just pass you, not say nothing. Here, you get a D-plus, the teachers expect you to improve. They ask you if you need help. That’s the difference, they come to you.”

Special education classes tend to be much smaller than general classes. For example, it’s not unusual for one special-education teacher to have just a handful of students, even with an educational assistant.

“I want to be a stevedore,” Isaac tells me, as he finishes up his final project of the quarter. “I got uncles who work for them. Once I get in, I’m set—get dental, medical, everything.”

I tell him, “It’s good you know people in the union.”

“Yeah, that’s the only way you get in,” Isaac replies matter-of-factly. “It’s not what you know. It’s who you know.”

One in 10 students at Moanalua—or 200 out of 2,000—are considered special education. Earlier in the week, I’d met students with physical disabilities—a girl with Downs syndrome, a boy with cerebral palsy, students who worked on skills more functional than academic. Like picking up a cup or crossing the street.

Special education students range from students with physical abilities to those with learning disorders, such as dyslexia. Though it may surprise people, under the Felix consent decree, Hawaii’s public schools even consider emotional disorders—anxiety and depression, for instance—potential disabilities. Kory Kazo-Fukuda is Moanalua’s behavioral health specialist, working with students who need help beyond what their academic counselors can offer.

“It’s just as debilitating to have an emotional impairment as any other impairment, and we have to treat it that way,” Kazo-Fukuda says.

Emotional disorders can lead to aggression or agitation in class, she says. The frequency and severity of such incidents separates the kids who are just acting up from those with serious emotional problems. Many of those same students often deal with substance-abuse problems, mainly alcohol and marijuana.

“Some of the stories these kids will tell you are horrible,” Galera would tell me later. Stories of domestic violence and abuse—one student even had a murdered relative die in his arms.

Isaac admits he wasn’t always this outgoing when he first came to Moanalua. He’s had to deal with tragic events in his own life.

“I don’t tell a lot of people about what happened, because I don’t want to use that as an excuse,” he tells me. “I still gotta work hard, you know.”

 

 

At recess, Isaac gives me his own tour of the campus, showing me where various cliques tend to congregate. “That’s Black Street,” he says, pointing to the mainly black students sitting on a bench in one hallway in the G-Building. “That’s Filipino Street right next to it.”

As we walk through the hallways, Isaac daps fists with friends he spots, tips his chin to others. “That’s where all the whites stay,” he says, with a laugh, as we pass another group, “mostly military kids. Over there, get all the Japanese, Chinese, too. There’s where all the Micronesians stay—get plenty of them. Oh, and there’s all the Samoans.”

He stops at the I-Building, adjacent to the administration building, at a group of ethnically mixed students. “These are my friends.”

His two pals, both sophomores, give me a once-over. They’re dressed almost identically—black shirt, jeans, shades. One sports a short, spiky do; the other a long, surfer look.

“There are lots of people here I don’t like,” Spiky Hair says, “like the black guys. They act stupid. They act all nuts.”

Surfer Boy chimes in, “Yeah, just ’cause they’re from the Mainland, they think they’re all bad.”

“But aren’t there white guys and guys from other ethnic groups who come here from the Mainland?” I ask.

“Yeah, we don’t like them, too,” Spiky says. “We don’t like guys from the Mainland.”

Four security guards and 16 security cameras watch over the Moanalua campus. Galera had told me earlier the school works to prevent violence by making the campus feel like a community, so students develop respect for everyone here.

“From what I’ve heard, there aren’t many fights around here,” I tell them.

Spiky tells me I’m not looking in the right places.

“Get plenty fights, just off campus,” he says. “You know where Red Hill is? That’s where the fights are. Or meters.”

He’s talking about the parking meters near the school.

“Guys come down from other schools—Waianae, Radford, McKinley,” he says. “They like scrap, ’cause they’re stupid.

“You know why there’s no fights on campus? The administration calls the cops so fast if there’s a fight here. Cannot handle, that’s why. They’re so generic.”

Kids try to be cool with each other, mind their own business, for the most part, Isaac tells me. But not everyone gets along.

“There are these two geeky Asian boys, and everybody picks on them, but I’m cool with them,” Isaac says. “You know what they do on the weekends? They go to the shooting range and practice shooting guns. So I tell my friends, eh, leave them alone.”

 

Juniors Janice* and Alison* sit among another dozen or so black students in the I-Building hallways. Alison tries to finish her math work. Janice surreptitiously listens to music. Her iPod is tucked into the back of her jeans, its wires running through the back of her white sweatshirt, the hood concealing her earphones.

This is not the first high school either has attended. Both come from military families, used to moving around from state to state, wherever their parents happened to be stationed.

“There aren’t many black people at this school, so we try to stick together,” says Janice, who’s originally from the South. “I’m not racist. That’s how I grew up. It’s just my comfort zone. That’s who I want to hang around with, and I’m not gonna change just ’cause I moved to Hawaii.”

I ask them if they thought racism was a problem on campus.

Alison starts laughing and taps Janice’s arm. Janice takes off her earphones, “What did she say?”

“She asked if there’s racism here.”

“Oh, hell yeah, there’s racism here,” Janice says. “Like yesterday, we had an assembly, and this one boy said we were from South Africa. Hello! Just ’cause I’m black don’t mean I’m from Africa. There are a lot of white people in South Africa, so he didn’t know what he was talking about.”

Alison agrees, “Sometimes, people say things that they think are funny, and they don’t realize it’s not. They don’t know that it offends us.”

 

 
Moanalua’s cafeteria teems with students at lunchtime.

David Izumi looks exactly how you’d expect a woodshop teacher to look. Big, hulking, linebacker build—thick neck, wide torso, scruffy hair under a baseball cap. He sits on a stool, leaning one elbow on a worktable, watching his students file into class.

“Eh! You’re late,” Izumi calls out to a boy stepping into the classroom less than a minute after the bell rings. “Sorry,” the boy mumbles.

“You know this lady,” Izumi points to me, “she’s from the district superintendent’s office. She’s keeping track of who’s late for class and she’s calling their parents. Tell her what your name is so she can write it down.”

The boy looks at me skeptically, holding the doorknob to the classroom that adjoins the woodshop. Izumi persists, “Tell her your name.”

The boy gives it to me. Izumi starts spelling it out slowly as the boy bolts into the classroom. He shuts the door, and Izumi chuckles heartily.

Izumi also coaches the school’s award-winning robotics team. In June, his team will compete in the National Underwater Robotic Competition in Texas—an opportunity given to teams that take top spots not only in their states, but also in their regions.

Despite their success, Izumi struggles to get funding for the team. “Last year, I put out $2,000 of my own money,” he says. “This year, I put out $1,000. We put in a budget, but what we want and what we get are two different things.”

 

The lunch here isn’t half-bad: roast beef on a Kaiser roll, potato wedges, carrot sticks, canned peaches and two peanut butter cookies—all for $1. Another day brought chili dogs and fries.

But many students forgo cafeteria food, instead using their lunch recess to attend club meetings, finish up homework or hang out with their friends in the courtyard.

 

 

1 Week. That’s what’s written on the chalkboard at the front of the band room. That’s exactly how long the 100-plus members of the school’s symphony orchestra have to rehearse before they head off to New York, to perform at Carnegie Hall.

As soon as they enter Room F-102, they get to work, pulling chairs out of their stacks and arranging them into sections—violins, violas, cellos and basses. No shoes are allowed inside the carpeted room. Students sit in their chairs, barefoot, tuning their instruments.

Musical director Elden Seta has taught at Moanalua for 17 years. He’s been recognized for his work by such prominent nationwide organizations as the Milken Foundation. Seta’s music program, which now has more than 500 members, attracts students to the school from all over the island.

When Seta—a tall, lanky figure—steps up to his podium, all of the musicians stand. Like everyone else in the room, Seta feels the pressure of the upcoming Carnegie Hall concert, even though this marks the third time his orchestra has been invited to play there.

Everyone must be seated at least 10 minutes before the full orchestra’s 6 p.m. rehearsal tonight, Seta tells his students. He’ll lock out any latecomers.

“I know it’s been a tough few weeks, but let’s keep working,” Seta says. “It’s not about New York. It’s about doing your best, whether you’re playing at the Pearl City auditorium, Carnegie Hall or our cafeteria. Now, let’s go straight to Tchaikovsky.”

Seta takes a deep breath, closes his eyes and raises his hand. When he opens his eyes, he’s a man possessed.

His hand comes down, and the students, sitting at the edge of their seats, their backs ramrod straight, begin to play.

“I need it to gallop,” Seta yells out over the violins, the cellos, the basses. “It needs to gallop with energy!”

Seta’s entire body swoops up and down, following the swing and sway of his hands. His eyes almost roll to the back of his head. He stomps the platform with the flat of his sock-clad foot.

This is just the string section, about half of the orchestra that will play Carnegie Hall in one week. Their sound is full, brilliant.

“No!” Seta cries out, clapping his hands together suddenly and spinning around on one foot. The music stops. “No, you can’t have everyone going bom bom bom and one person going bum bum bum!”

The students understand exactly what he means. Seta puts the palms of his hands against his temples. He is exhausting to watch.

He raises his hand once more, and the orchestra tries again. They’ve got it this time.

“Great!” Seta yells out.

 

School life doesn’t end when the 2:30 p.m. bell rings. A few hours later, when the sun is about to set, the faculty parking lot still looks full, with the cars of many of the school’s 130 teachers.

Lots of students leave as soon as they’re allowed, but many stay behind or come back later for cheerleading practice, basketball games, track meets. For club meetings and band rehearsals.

About 800 students participate in one or more of the school’s sports. During football season, sophomore Savaii Eselu’s school day is bookended with a 6:30 a.m. team workout and an after-school practice that runs till 10 p.m. I wonder if I could do that.

In the weeks leading up to the Carnegie Hall concert, symphony orchestra musicians—Eselu included—practice about three nights a week, from 6 to 8:30. Last Friday, the school’s newspaper staff worked till 2 a.m. to get their March edition to press on time.

I go back to the campus for a girl’s basketball game, to watch Moanalua’s varsity team trounce Waialua, just two games away from a potential championship. Even when the game wraps up at 9 p.m., the light in Galera’s office is still on. He’s pulling his typical 12- to 15-hour workday, getting by on three to four hours of sleep a night.